The Schizophrenic River

By Marcia Chaiken and Jan Chaiken

The current focus of Republican candidates in this U.S. presidential election year on the border between the U.S. and Mexico is nothing new. Ever since the mid-1800s when the Mexican state of Texas declared itself independent from Mexico and 10 years later was annexed by the U.S., border issues have led to such craziness that it literally drove a river schizophrenic.

The river that once defined the border between the self-proclaimed independent state of Texas and the rest of Mexico has a split personality. In the U.S. it is known as the Rio Grande; in Mexico, Rio Bravo del Norte. Both are Spanish names with essentially the same meaning, respectively “big river” and “strong northern river.” The names themselves are indicative of a personality disorder, since drought, dams, and drainage of the water for irrigation have reduced the river in many places to a trickle, where it is neither big nor strong.

Even geographers don’t take a dry scientific approach to mapping the river. U.S. maps show the Rio Grande consisting of a 1,885-mile waterway beginning in Colorado, flowing south through New Mexico and then South East around Texas and ending in the Gulf of Mexico. Mexican maps show the Rio Bravo Norte as a 3034- kilometer river coursing through the Mexican states of Chihuahua, Coahuila, Nuevo Leon and Tamaulipas.

Along the river, whatever you call it, cities that are divided by the waterway have different names and different official languages, although for centuries Spanish has been the predominant tongue. Estranged sister cities include El Paso–Ciudad Juarez, Laredo–Nuevo Laredo, McAllen–Hidalgo, and Brownsville–Matamoros. It took an act of legislation by both congresses, U.S. and Mexico, to ratify a treaty in 1944 that formally designated the river as a legal separation of land, language, and families. It took an act of courage by Pope Francis (Papa Pancho) in February 2016, to begin the process of bringing them back together when he celebrated a collective mass in El Paso/Ciudad Juarez.

The river, as a child of mother nature, has provided a channel for people to escape the depravity of human civilization. When slavery was outlawed in Mexico in the 1820s and black people were granted full citizenship, slaves from the U.S. and the territories began to cross the river to seek asylum. When extreme poverty was rampant in Mexico and agriculture was flourishing in the U.S., men swam across the river to work in the U.S. fields, providing stoop labor from sunup to sundown. And when authorities tried to stem the flow of people, the river changed course and in so doing changed the legal boundaries.

Centuries ago, the river was a beautiful feature of a continent that supported many forms of life including humans. But over the centuries, the river has been abused. Water has been diverted for irrigation, dams have been built for an insatiable need for energy, agricultural fields near the river have been fertilized with toxic chemicals poisoning the water, and concrete channels have been built to prevent the river from naturally changing its course.

During the Johnson administration in the 1960s and the Clinton administration in the late 1990s progress was made in protecting and preserving sections of the river. But abuse in non-protected areas affects the whole body. And now the river is threatened by voters in a U.S. presidential campaign who don’t care if the river dies as long as a wall is built there.

Fortunately there is a Democratic presidential candidate who cares about the river, cares about the environment and cares about tearing down barriers between the U.S. and Mexico. With serious analysis and cooperative, binational problem-solving, and maybe a little love and a lot of kindness, the river may recover.

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